Hope

Nov. 29th, 2020 —  homily by Rev. Antoine “Tony” Love. 1 Cor. 1:3-9

The Start of our Advent Journey

To the family and friends of God, to my brothers and sisters in faith: greetings of grace and peace to you. Isn’t it good news to know that God’s grace and peace are still ours today? I rejoice this day that our God has blessed us with another day of life. We woke up in time and not in eternity to see the dawning of another day — a day filled with God’s provision of new mercies that prove to us that God is faithful.

As we come to this celebration of praise and worship, I trust that you, like me, are coming with a grateful heart, full of Thanksgiving and with deep appreciation for all that God has done, is doing, and will do. Today, God’s beloved, we are starting our advent journey — the season of expectant waiting and preparation that calls people of faith to remember, as well as rejoice, over the Christ child that has come, and the conquering Christ who is to come. 

When we entered this celebration — our journey today — we lit the first candle of our advent wreath.  The candle of Hope. 

The Pessimist and the Optimist

Let me share with you a story. It’s a joke, but I believe it is food for thought as we consider hope. Will you listen? There were twins about the age of five or six. Worried that the two had developed extreme personalities — one being a total pessimist and the other a total optimist, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First, the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him into a room piled to the ceiling high with brand new toys. Instead of yelling with delight, the little fellow burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of these toys?”

“Yes!” the little boy balled. “But if I did, I’d only break them.” 

Next, the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him into a room piled high to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yell of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clamored to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. 

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!” 

Hope. Isn’t it interesting, if not amazing, how one acts when hope is present? 

Will you join me in prayer? Let us pray. Consecrate me now to thy service, Lord, and by the power of grace divine. Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope, let my will be lost in thine. Draw me nearer, draw us nearer. In the name of Jesus, the guarantor of all my prayers, I ask. Hallelujah and amen. 

Hope

People of God, “hope” is defined simply as a wish, an optimistic state of mind that is based upon the expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events or circumstances in one’s life or the world at large — the belief that things will work, especially when it seems otherwise. In the Bible, hope is defined as the confident expectation of what God has promised and it’s strength is in God’s faithfulness.

To the people of the Old testament —  the Hebrew Bible — God promised a Savior. And those people waited with confidence for God’s promise to be fulfilled. At the appointed time, God sent a Savior. God sent His son, Jesus, born of Mary. God, a faithful God, intersected with humanity. God in Jesus of Nazareth becomes divinely human, as well as humanly divine. God robes in flesh and comes to be with God’s created. A Savior, a redeemer, was hoped for. The coming of Jesus was God’s promise being fulfilled. Jesus was their hope. Jesus is our hope too.

When I think of Jesus as Hope, I become acutely aware that hope is not a posture of resignation, nor reclining into a kumbaya moment of marking time. No, instead hope is an active, living, if not lively stance, that beckons me and beckons you. It beckons us to engage, to be, and do as hope did, as Jesus did! 

I recall Hope was not born into the best of places, under the best of circumstances. No, Hope arrived during a governmental occupation in a city so overrun because of the census taking place, that Hope’s birthplace was not great or grand, but very humble. Lowly, meek. Hope arrived in the filth and the foul smells of a manger and probably unattended. Even though the heavens declared the arrival of Hope, as Hope made its entry into the world, wickedness in high places sought to destroy Hope’s promise and potential. Because of this threat, Hope becomes an immigrant, who flees from his homeland of Judea, only to resettle in another place — Egypt. Hope was born into a blended family, had a stepdad that took Hope as its own and raised Hope. And despite Hope’s birth and his challenges, Hope kept digging, and Hope rose. 

When Hope saw the suffering, the injury and harm of people, Hope stopped to talk with, to engage, reached out to touch, make a connection, and then sought to bring healing, restoration, and wholeness, because Hope was always desiring to bring people to a better place, state, or reality. 

Hope reached out to those who are on the edges, on the very margins of their society and their community. When Hope met a woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, one with whom Hope should have never associated with because of race relations, her questionable background, Hope took time to encounter her, because Hope did not see her for who she was but for who she could become. 

Encountering a man who was mentally ill, living among the dead in a cemetery, a man whose community had tried to subdue him with chains to contain him, a man who would cut himself with stones and rocks he found, Hope attended to him, called out the challenges that afflicted him, so that deliverance and relief could come. Oh, see family and friends, Hope does not discard, discount, or disregard.

As Hope told parables, teaching stories, it became apparent and clear that the way we’ve always done it was up for reconsideration. As Hope taught us that a prodigal son could go home and be celebrated, a good shepherd would leave the 99 and go in search of the one. Who your neighbor is has nothing to do with the expectations associated with position or status, but everything to do with compassionate actions. And in God’s economy, the first would be last and the last would be first.

Hope reconstructed a withered hand, Hope commanded a paralytic to rise from his mat. Hope told the winds and the waves “peace be still.” Hope turned over the tables in the place of worship in protest. Hope called dead things back to life. 

When Hope was set up falsely accused, sentenced to die, Hope carried the weight for others. He’s not heavy, she’s not heavy, they’re my family. 

Hope was mocked, beaten, spat upon, hung up for our hang ups, pierced, died, and yet sprang up eternal to offer a more abundant way of living.

Oh my sisters and my brothers, as people of Hope, followers of Jesus who is our Hope, Hope calls us to be active participants in God’s purpose and plan, in God’s will and God’s way. Fully understanding that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither our ways God’s ways. 

Living as People of Hope

Can we be people of hope, who pray the Lord’s prayer, make the claim “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven,” and then sit along the sidelines of life to witness the advancement of darkness, knowing that there are the haves and the have-nots? 

Hope compels us to participate, to usher in God’s kingdom and God’s will, to assist God’s reign, being made real here and now, as it is in heaven. 

Can we be people of hope who trust that the spirit of the Lord is upon us, because the spirit has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor, sends us to proclaim freedom to the prisoner, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, then watch our siblings in faith and of this world being held hostage by power, greed or privilege? 

Can we be people of hope who affirm the prophet of old Micah’s words that the Lord requires us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God and then turn our backs as we witness persons being treated unfairly and being discriminated against? 

Can we be people of hope who espouse the belief that we have been called, we have been set apart, and then in the face of needing to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothing the needy and visit the sick and in prison, deny ever seeing these as servant opportunities? 

Beloved of God, during this advent journey, let us consider where hope is requiring us to be present and accounted for, to show up, to show out, to set it off in the name of Jesus who is our hope. Consider during this global pandemic since mid-March, hope has taught us how to pivot, how to be the church that is not a building, but a fellowship of faithful believers who moved mission and ministry to online presence, discovered ways to enlarge our footprint so that serving and blessing and reaching and caring and teaching and encouraging folks did not skip a beat as we advanced God’s ways. Hope demands that we keep on digging. 

Saints, there’s a pony in here! Keep on fighting. Might will yield to right. Keep on marching for those who can’t take another step. Change will come. Keep on giving, pouring yourselves out for others until all people have a fair share. Keep on speaking up, turning the tide towards realizing God’s Beloved Community. Keep on serving, for there’s plenty room at the table. Keep on loving. In the end, love prevails. Keep hope alive. Keep it well. Amen

The Sheep and the Goats

Nov. 22nd, 2020 — homily on Matthew 24:31-46 by Pastor Galen Zook

Not Enough Good Works?

There are many jokes about people arriving at the Pearly Gates and being met by St. Peter, who asks them a series of questions to determine whether or not they are fit to enter into heaven.

One such story is of a woman who had a nightmare that she arrived at the Pearly Gates, only to see the person in front of her being turned away.

As the person walked in her direction, she noticed that it was Mother Teresa. Shocked and surprised to see that Mother Teresa had been turned away at the Pearly Gates, she asked, “What happened?” Mother Teresa wore a forlorn expression on her face as she replied, “They told me that I should have done more good works!”

Sheep and Goats

Now, we know that none of us will get into heaven based upon the number of good works that we’ve done, or even whether or not our good works outweigh the bad things that we’ve done, even though at first glance, Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25:31-46 might seem to suggest that this is the case. 

In this parable, when Jesus comes in glory and is seated on his throne, all of the nations of the world are gathered before him. Jesus separates the people, putting some on his left (the bad side), and some on his right (the good side), based upon whether or not they fed Jesus when he was hungry, or welcomed him when he was a stranger, took care of him when he was sick, or visited him when he was in prison.

Neither group seems to recall having fed, clothed, visited, or welcomed Jesus, but Jesus tells them, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

The ones on his right — the sheep — who fed, clothed, visited, and welcomed the least of these are told that they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them “from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34), whereas those on his left — the goats — who did not feed, clothe, visit, or welcome the least of these, are sent away, “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” 

Christ Among Us

Now to some of us, this parable might feel rather like the nightmarish story I shared at the beginning of this sermon — especially when we compare ourselves with saintly people like Mother Teresa. We might wonder, how do we know if we’ve properly fed, clothed, or welcomed the members of Christ’s family? How do we know if we’ve properly taken care of the “least of these”? Would we be among the sheep or the goats in Jesus’s parable?

Well, like the previous parables that we’ve studied in Matthew 25, this parable too is most likely intended to provide a picture of how we are to live in the here and now, as await that future time when Christ returns in his glory and brings God’s reign in its fullness. And, rather than a point-by-point allegory, where every single detail of the story corresponds to something in our day and age, Jesus’s story was most likely intended to evoke a feeling or emotion, and to make a few simple key points. 

One of the main points that we take away from this parable is that we serve Jesus through serving others — particularly those who are in need, who Jesus calls the “least of these,” and those who are members of Christ’s family.

You see, Jesus knew that when he ascended up into heaven, his followers would be tempted to fight amongst themselves. Like the mean sheep in Ezekiel 34:21 who pushed the weaker animals out of the way so that they could have all of the food for themselves, Jesus’s followers would be tempted to lust after power, to try to fill the leadership vacuum that would be left because Jesus was no longer living among them. 

But Jesus wanted his disciples — and us today! — to know that he is indeed among us, that even though we may not see him here in the flesh, he is very much present in our brothers and sisters in Christ, in the homeless people we meet on the streets, in the prisoners, in those who are sick and dying, and in those who do not have enough food to eat.

And so, rather than push one another out of the way, rather than stepping on top of one another in order to get what we want, Jesus wants us to look out for and care for the weakest, the poorest, and the most vulnerable among us. Because when we look out for the least of these, we serve Christ himself.

Ultimately, we know that our entrance into heaven will not be because of our good works, but because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and through accepting the free gift of salvation that Jesus offers to all. 

It’s up to us whether we choose to accept or reject that free gift. But if and when we accept that free gift of salvation, we enter into a relationship with Jesus,  — a relationship that is further matured and developed as we serve one another, and as we serve the poor, the marginalized, the strangers, and the least of these. 

If we truly love Jesus, then we will love those who are in need. If we truly want to follow Jesus, then we will follow Him to the hurting, the lost, the poor, and the needy.

If we truly want to know Jesus, we will get to know Him by serving the least of these, and by serving one another. 

Our Rabbi Ascends to Heaven

The story goes that in a small Jewish town in Russia, there was a rabbi who disappeared each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted disciples boasted that during those hours their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God.

A stranger moved into the town, and he was skeptical about all this, so he decided to check things out. He hid and watched as the rabbi got up one Friday morning, said his prayers, and then dressed in peasant clothes. The stranger followed as the rabbi grabbed an axe, went off into the woods, and cut some firewood, which he then hauled to a shack on the outskirts of the village, where an old woman and her sick son lived. The rabbi left the firewood with them, enough to last them for a week, and then snuck back home.

Having observed the rabbi’s actions, the newcomer stayed on in the village and became his disciple. And from then on, whenever he heard one of the villagers say, “On Friday mornings, our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer would quietly add, “If not higher.” 

Not a How-To-Manual

Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25 is not primarily a comprehensive how-to-manual about how to get into heaven when we die, but rather a description of how his followers will live in the meantime, and how we find and serve Jesus even when we can’t see him. 

If we want to know Jesus, we will get to know him through serving the least of these.

Irresistible Revolution

Shane Claiborne is a Christian activist who was one of the founding members of The Simple Way, a Christian community in Philadelphia whose mission is: “To love God. To love people. To follow Jesus.” Shane has taken the gospel beyond the streets of Philadelphia to the slums of Calcutta and the war zones of Iraq. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, which had an incredible impact on my life when I read it as a young adult, Shane Claiborne describes how he saw God in the homeless people that he served. He said,

I saw one woman in a crowd as she struggled to get a meal from one of the late-night food vans. When we asked her if the meals were really worth the fight, she said: “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for another homeless lady—an elderly woman around the corner who can’t fight for a meal.”

I saw a street kid get 20 bucks panhandling outside of a store and then immediately run inside to share it with all of his friends. We saw a homeless man lay a pack of cigarettes in the offering plate because it was all he had. I met a blind street musician who was viciously abused by some young guys who would mock her, curse her, and one night even sprayed Lysol in her eyes as a practical joke. As we held her that night, one of us said, “There are a lot of bad folks in the world, aren’t there?”

And she said: “Oh, but there are a lot of good ones too. And the bad ones make you, the good ones, seem even sweeter.”

We met a little 7-year-old girl who was homeless, and we asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She paused pensively and then replied, “I want to own a grocery store.” We asked her why, and she said, “So I can give out food to all the hungry people.”

Mother Teresa used to say, “In the poor we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.” 

And Shane Claiborne closes by saying, “Now I knew what she meant.”

If we want to know Jesus, if we truly want to know him, if we want to develop a relationship with Christ, we will get to know Him as we serve others. It’s not about keeping track, or about keeping score. It’s not about making sure that our good deeds outweigh the bad things that we’ve done. It’s falling at the feet of Jesus, and saying, “Here am I Lord, send me.” Send me to the poor, the lost, the hurting, the broken. Send me to do your will. I’m here. Use me as you choose. 

When we submit ourselves to the King, when we lay our lives on the altar, and allow him to use how however he chooses, when we follow him to the hurting, the lost, and the broken, that’s when we will truly meet Jesus.

Parable of the Talents

Nov. 15th, 2020, homily on Matthew 25:14-30 by Pastor Galen Zook

In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells the story about a very wealthy man who was preparing to go on a long journey. Before he departed, he called three of his servants into his office, and gave them each a substantial sum of money to take care of while he was gone.

To the first man he gave five talents. Now a talent in our day and age refers to a skill or ability that someone has. But in Jesus’s day, a talent was a measurement — in this case of gold or silver — equal to about 100 pounds.

It’s hard for us to imagine this amount of money because most of us have never seen that much money in our lives.  In Biblical times it would have taken the average laborer 15 years to earn a talent’s worth of gold. In today’s currency, that translates to over half a million dollars (assuming an annual salary of $35,000).

So the first servant was essentially entrusted with 2.5 million dollars, the second servant 1 million dollars, and the third servant was entrusted with $500,000 dollars.

The Stewards

The wealthy man left for his journey without providing any instructions as to what the servants were to do with his money while he was gone. But they each thought they knew their master pretty well, and so they immediately made decisions based upon what they thought he would want them to do with it.

The first man took his five hundred pounds of gold and went off and began trading with it. By the time the master returned, the first servant had doubled the portion of his master’s wealth that he was responsible for — from  2.5 million dollars to five million dollars.

The second servant took his 1 million dollars worth of gold and went out and began doing the same, and when the master came back he gave his master 2 million dollars worth of gold.

The master was extremely pleased with these first two servants and entrusted them with even more of his property and possessions to manage.

But the third servant — oh that third servant! Having observed that the master was a “harsh man,” who was cold and calculating, and seemed to care little for others, the servant was afraid. Perhaps he felt that the responsibility that he had been given was too great. Perhaps he was afraid of messing up, of making a mistake, or of losing his master’s wealth. And so he took the hundred pounds of gold with which he had been entrusted, he dug a hole in the ground, and he buried the money for safekeeping until his master returned.

Sure enough, when the master returned from his journey, the man dug up the gold and brought it to his master, explaining that he knew that his master was a harsh man, and that he had buried it for safekeeping because he had been afraid.

Most likely he expected the master to breathe a sigh of relief that his gold was returned to him safely. Perhaps he expected a pat on the back because he had not lost any of his master’s money.

But instead, the master was furious! He questioned the man as to why he hadn’t at least deposited the money into a bank where it would have at least gained some interest. (Even with today’s low savings account interest rates, half a million dollars would have earned at least a few thousand dollars in interest!)

The master was not in fact pleased that the man had buried the money, and rather than entrusting him with more responsibilities, he took the gold that he had given the servant to steward, and he gave it to the first servant who had proven his ability to multiply his master’s wealth.

A Glimpse of the Kingdom

Now, like our gospel lesson last week, we must be careful not to read too much into this story. We must fight the temptation to pick apart the narrative and try to correlate every single detail to someone or something in our day and age. 

Most of the parables that Jesus told were intended to evoke a particular emotion or feeling, or to illustrate a single point.

Last week’s parable was intended to illustrate what it’s like to await the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom, which will take place when Christ returns. We saw that, like the bridesmaids in that parable, we must be watchful, and keep praying, keep alert, and keep working for God’s Kingdom, since we do not know when Christ will return.

Jesus prefaces this parable with the words “It is as if…” (25:14). The “it” here most likely indicates that this parable also tells us something about the kingdom of heaven and about how we are to live in the meantime, as we await the day when Christ returns and the Kingdom comes in its fullness.

And so, a few points of connection: 

Everything We Have Belong to God

Like the servants who were entrusted with their master’s money but did not actually own it themselves, so too everything we have ultimately belongs to God. 

Some of us may say, “but I’ve worked hard for everything I have!” And that may be true. But it was God who gave us the will and the means to work. It was God who gave us the skills and the abilities, the initiative, the drive, and the opportunity to earn what we have. And so ultimately everything we have belongs to God, not us. As it says in 1 Timothy 6:7 (NIV), “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” 

One of the questions this parable raises for us, then, is “What do we do with the possessions that we’ve been entrusted with while we are here on this earth?” Does God expect us to multiply the wealth and the resources that we’ve been given, like the first two servants in this story?

In contrast to the master in Jesus’s story who was a harsh man who reaped where he did not plant and harvested where he did not sow, our master is kind and loving and generous. God cares for those who are oppressed and marginalized and downtrodden. God hears the cries of the poor and needy. And so as stewards of God’s wealth, we should use the wealth we’ve been entrusted with in accordance with God’s Kingdom values.

Three Simple Rules of Money Management

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught three simples rules in relation to money:

1. Earn all you can;

2. Save all you can;

3. Give all you can.

The story goes that when Wesley was a fellow at Oxford University (in the early 1700’s), he encountered a chambermaid on a cold wintry day. He noticed that the woman was wearing only a thin linen gown for protection against the bitter cold. 

John Wesley reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy herself a coat, but realized that he had very little money to give her, having recently spent a large sum of money to buy pictures to adorn the walls of his apartment.

It struck Wesley that the Lord was probably not pleased with how he had spent his money. He asked himself: “Will Thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ Thou has adorned thy walls with the money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold!”

Wesley went on to cry, “O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures [on my walls] the blood of this poor maid?”

After this insight, Wesley committed himself to living as frugally as possible, in order to give away as much money as he could. As his income increased over the years, his standard of living did not. He continued to live on essentially a college student stipend, and gave away all of his excess money. When he passed away, he had no wealth to speak of, but only a few coins in his pockets and drawers, and as a true scholar, a substantial collection of books on his shelves.

In contrast, however, to many religious people who railed against money, Wesley pointed out that it is “’’The love of money,’ [that] ‘is the root of all evil;’ but not the thing itself.” according to Wesley, money is “an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked … a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain.”

Living Creatively and Lavishly for the Kingdom

Now of course, Jesus’s parable does not only apply to our use of worldly wealth. It applies to the ways in which we use everything that we’ve been entrusted with — our gifts, our talents, our skills, our abilities, our relationships, even the people who are under our care. Like the servants in this story, we are simply stewards of God’s resources — none of it belongs to us. And like the servants, we should use what has been entrusted to us in accordance with our master’s desires.

Rather than hiding away or burying the resources, skills and talents with which we have been entrusted, we should use them creatively and lavishly to further and advance God’s Kingdom.  

If you have excess money or financial resources, invest it in Kingdom purposes! If you have excess time, see how you can use that time to bless others. If you have been given special skills or abilities, use them to share and proclaim God’s love with those around you.

Unlike the third servant, we do not have to live our lives in fear of messing up or slipping up, for we know that our God is a loving and compassionate God who is ready to forgive and ready to heal us, ready to welcome us back when we go astray. 

And so, let us live creatively, and abundantly, earning all we can — growing and developing in our skills and abilities and talents, wealth and resources. Saving all we can, and giving all we can. Let us love freely, even as God has loved us. Let us forgive, even as we’ve been forgiven. And let us continue to work for God’s Kingdom until Christ returns, when we can truty “enter into the joy” that God has prepared for us.

The Shout at Midnight

Nov. 8th, 2020, homily on Matthew 25:1-13 by Pastor Galen Zook

This week many of us probably felt like the bridesmaids in Matthew 25, burning the midnight oil as we waited to find out the results of the presidential elections.

Around 2 am on Wednesday morning, my brother, who is a political science professor and lives in downtown Washington DC, texted me to ask if I was still awake. He was downtown at 2 in the morning, waiting to hear President Trump’s speech.

As more of a morning person myself, I had been fast asleep for several hours and missed both the president’s speech and my brother’s text, but I did in fact do a Google search for “election results 2020” when I woke up in the middle of the night. And I definitely found myself checking the election results frequently during random hours of the day and night all week until it was finally announced yesterday who had won.

For most of this week we did not know who the next president would be — having to wait so long is a very rare experience for us here in the U.S.

As Americans, we are generally not accustomed to waiting. We’re used to getting what we want, when we want it. We can order fast food and have it delivered while it’s still hot. We can even order ice cream online and have it delivered before it melts!

Waiting very long for anything is not very easy for most of us. 

What is Going On?

Now, the parable in Matthew 25 is a description of what Jesus says the kingdom of heaven “will be like.” And there’s a lot of waiting involved in this parable. 

Now I’ll be honest — this has never been one of my favorite parables in the Bible, and not just because I don’t like having to wait for things. I never liked the fact that Jesus called some of these bridesmaids “foolish.” And the five “wise” bridesmaids seemed rather selfish to me — why wouldn’t they share their oil with those who didn’t have enough? 

We might wonder, what is Jesus trying to tell us with this parable? Is the moral of the story that we should look out for ourselves first and foremost? That we shouldn’t share what we have with those around us who are in need?

Well, we know that is probably not the point of this parable, since this chapter ends with a parable in which the “righteous” are the ones who feed the hungry, welcome the strangers, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

So if this parable is not about stockpiling and hoarding our physical resources, what is it about? What is going on in this parable?

Bridesmaids 

Well, like most stories in the Gospels, before we can understand the meaning of this parable, we have to dig a little bit into first century Palestinian culture.  And in particular, we have to understand the role of bridesmaids in first century Palestian weddings. 

You see, I’ve been a groomsman in a couple different weddings, and for the most part, being a groomsman involves showing up on time with your tux, making sure your bowtie is on straight, and trying to stand as still as possible throughout the whole wedding ceremony so that you don’t take attention away from the bride and groom.

But in Bible times, being a member of the wedding party — and particularly a bridesmaid — came with an additional responsibility. You see, the role of the bridesmaids was to escort the groom to the bride’s house, where he would meet the bride, and then together they would travel to the wedding feast. 

Since the wedding feast would take place in the evening, it was important that there were torches to light the way for the wedding procession, and that’s where the bridesmaids came in. 

It was the responsibility of the bridesmaids to light the torches that would illuminate the path so that the bride and groom would know where to go. Without the benefit of streetlights or any other sort of illumination, you can imagine that it got very dark on those rural country roads. And travel at night on those dirt paths and steep roads would have been quite dangerous. So the bridesmaids and their torches played a critical role.

The problem was that the bridesmaids had no idea when the groom would arrive. And in this particular story, he was delayed for some reason.  And so the ten bridesmaids had to wait. 

Waiting must have been so difficult for them. Many of them had looked forward in anticipation — probably from the time they were little girls — to the day when they would have the opportunity to be bridesmaids and to light the torches for the newly married couple.

But eventually they all grew tired. And as the night wore on, they became drowsy and dozed off and went to sleep. 

The problem was that when it was announced that the groom was finally soon to arrive, some of them couldn’t light their torches. They had failed to adequately prepare for the possibility that the groom might be delayed. They had failed to bring extra oil for their torches, and they could not light them. 

The five bridesmaids who ran out of oil asked the five who had brought extra oil if they could have some of theirs. But the dilemma was that if those who had extra oil shared theirs, they all would run out of oil for their torches before their journey was completed, leaving the whole wedding party in a vulnerable and potentially dangerous situation

So the wise bridesmaids, who had come prepared with extra oil, suggested to the foolish and unprepared bridesmaids that they go and quickly buy some oil, which they hurried off to do.

Fortunately, there were shops open at this time of night. A wedding celebration of this magnitude involved the whole village. And since wedding feasts lasted for seven days, no doubt the shopowners expected that someone might run out of something, and were thus prepared to sell oil to these bridesmaids. 

Unfortunately for the bridesmaids, they did not make it back in time. The groom arrived while they were still at the store, and the five wise bridesmaids accompanied him and his new bride to the wedding feast by themselves. By the time the other five returned with their oil-filled lamps, it was too late. The party had already started, and the host refused to let them in.

Because they had not been properly prepared, they had failed at the one job they were supposed to do. Their lack of diligence and foresight had jeopardized the safety of everyone involved in the wedding party, and their failure brought a certain level of shame to the bride and groom. 

This would be not unlike a modern day bridesmaid or groomsman forgetting their gown or tuxedo, or arriving late to the wedding, or making a big show during the wedding ceremony that drew the attention away from the bride and groom. This is something that the bridesmaids will probably never live down, and it might take a while for the bride and groom to forgive them.

Keep Alert

Now it could be tempting to try to pick apart every element of this story and try to correlate it to our world world — to try to figure out exactly who each of the characters in the story might represent, or to try to decipher some hidden meaning in even the most minute details. 

But Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). And remember, Jesus prefaced this parable by saying, “…The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” (Matt. 25:1). 

So Jesus’s main point is that we should be vigilant. We should keep alert. And we should always be ready, because we never know when Jesus will return. 

As the traditional Gospel song said, “Keep your lamp(s) trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh.”

In the meantime, though, since we do not know how long it will take for Jesus to return, we must keep praying, keep serving, keep working to bring about God’s reign here and now on this earth, as it is in heaven.

Life is a Marathon not a Sprint

You see, we might think that the idea that Jesus might return at any minute means we should try to cram our days and weeks full, working for the Lord, frantically trying to get everything done while we can.

But I think Jesus’s point is actually the opposite. You see, the wise bridesmaids were not the ones who burned up all their oil as fast as they could. No, the wise ones were the ones who bought extra oil so they could keep their lamps burning as long as necessary. The wise ones were prepared to wait all night if necessary, and they kept extra oil on hand — just in case.

Those of us who have ever ran in a long-distance footrace know that you never want to use up all your energy during the first mile. It’s important to pace yourself, to save some of that energy for the last mile of the race. As it has often been said, life is a marathon, not a sprint.

And so, while it may seem selfish, even while we wait, and work and strive to bring about God’s reign here and now, we need to tend to our own spiritual health and well-being. We need to make sure that not only are our lamps “trimmed and burning,” but that we have enough oil to last us for a while, because we do not know how long it will be until Jesus returns.

And so, even while we pour ourselves out to help others, we also need to pull back, to allow God to refresh us and restore us — to refill our oil. We are not invincible or invulnerable. Just as the wise bridesmaids wisely held on to their extra oil, knowing that they wouldn’t be any good to the bride and groom if they used up or gave away all their oil, so we too need to be wise in our service for God’s Kingdom.

Friends, we do not know when Jesus will return, or when it will be our time to go and be with him. We must be faithful, vigilant, and keep alert. We must keep our lamps trimmed and burning, so that we are ready at any moment when he returns. But let’s also make sure that we have enough oil to last us for a while. Let’s seek help when we need it, and remember that we are not in this alone. 

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning 

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh.

Children don’t get weary. Children don’t get weary. 

Children don’t get weary. ‘Til the work is done.

These Are They

Nov. 1st, 2020 — homily on Revelation 7:9-17 for All Saints/All Souls Sunday by Pastor Galen Zook

I’ve been contemplating death and life a lot this week.

Last Saturday, I led a Celebration of Life service for a young mother who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Her teenage son was a close friend of my daughter. 

A few days later, I watched the livestream of the funeral service for my cousin, who passed away due in part to COVID. 

Many of us experienced the loss of loved ones this past year, but we were not able to gather together with others to celebrate their life or to mourn their passing due to social distancing. In situations where we or others did choose to come together to encourage and support each other in our grief, we found that there was an added level of distress and concern in our preparations. 

Last week as we prepared for the socially distanced Celebration of Life service that was held here in our sanctuary, the grieving husband said to me, “We don’t want this to turn into a superspreader event. She would not have wanted that.” We of course took every necessary precaution to ensure the safety of those who attended, sanitizing the sanctuary afterwards as well to prepare for our worship here the next morning.

A few days later, however, as I watched the livestream of my cousin’s funeral at home on my computer, I found that I was so distracted and concerned for the safety of those who were attending the funeral in person, that it was difficult for me to get very much out of the service. It wasn’t until after the memorial service when I was informed of the extensive preparations that had gone into ensuring the safety of those in attendance that my mind was put somewhat more at ease.

All of this is an indication of the extremely difficult and complex time that we are living in the midst of. Dealing with grief and mourning the loss of loved ones is always hard, but our pain and grief, fear and anxiety is compounded during this season, due to the pandemic that we’re experiencing. 

Worshipping Together Around God’s Throne

Of course, all of this makes us look forward that much more to the day when we will be with Jesus in heaven, worshipping together around God’s throne. That time when there will be no more sickness or death, loss or heartache. When we won’t have to worry about the coronavirus or another other sort of plague or pandemic.

In Revelation chapter 7, John the Revelator had a vision of a multitude of people, so great that no one could count them, consisting of people from every nation, tribe, people group, and language, standing together before God’s throne, wearing white robes, and holding palm branches in their hands. 

In a loud voice they proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10). 

We learn that this multitude of people were those who had been through a “great ordeal” (Rev. 7:14 NRSV) — otherwise called “the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14 MSG), but that they had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14b). 

In other words, these are followers of Christ who had given their lives in the service of Jesus. We might call them “martyrs,” people who died for their faith in Christ. They had endured persecution, imprisonment, perhaps even torture, sickeness, disease, and death, all for the sake of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But now they are in the presence of God. The angels in John’s vision told him that “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:16-17).

For people who had endured persecution and starvation, torture and death, the idea of never being hungry or thirst again, never again experiencing scorching heat, the image of being guided by the Good Shepherd to springs of living water and having God’s presence so close to you that God can literally wipe away every tear from your eyes, sounds pretty good.

John the Revelator was of course someone who had experienced persecution himself. He had this vision while on the Isle of Patmos, exiled from his friends and family members. He was experiencing extreme isolation and social distancing. No doubt he had lost many friends and loved ones due to persecution, and had been prevented from gathering with others to mourn and grieve their passing. 

And so to John, and to us today, this image of one day gathering together in worship around the throne of God, and having God wipe away every tear from our eyes provides us with much comfort and solace in the midst of our grief and anxiety.

Giving our Lives

But John’s vision should not only give us hope and comfort for the future. It should also transform the way we live our lives here and now.

You see, the martyrs did not sacrifice their lives in order to try to earn their way into heaven, or so they could go to heaven to be with Jesus. But rather they were people who were so passionately in love with Jesus, that they sought to follow and live for him in every single aspect of their lives. They gave their lives sacrificially to others, just as Jesus did, not only in their dying, but even moreso in their living. 

They gave of their time and energy and resources to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and deed. These martyrs had experienced the love, and grace, and forgiveness that Jesus offers to all, and they gave their all to proclaim that love to all those around them and all those who would come after them.

All Saints/All Souls Day

Today is All Saints Sunday and tomorrow is All Souls day, when we remember all those who have gone on before us. In particular we think of those like the martyrs here in Revelation chapter 7 who sought to live as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. 

Saints and martyrs were not perfect people. In fact, in the Bible refers to all followers of Jesus are referred to as “saints.” But we generally use this word to describe people that we look up to and admire, people who sought to live their lives in service of Jesus Christ. 

Role Models

Whether we like it or not, there are people around us who are looking up to us and watching us today. They’re watching the way we live our lives, and they might even be seeking to follow our example. The number of people who attend church on a regular basis has dropped significantly over the years, and few people seem to read their Bibles. That means that for many people in our lives, we may be some of the few active church goers that many people know.

While we might hesitate to think of ourselves as “saints,” this does mean that we need to think carefully about what we say and do, and how we live our lives. And as such, I believe that there is much that we can learn from these saints and martyrs here in Revelation 7.

Confession

First, we must acknowledge that our hope is not in our own goodness or righteousness, but rather because of the shed blood of the Lamb — Jesus Christ, as we see in Rev. 7:14. This is why later this morning before we partake in communion, we will confess our sins and wrongdoing, and be reminded again of the grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers. As we allow God’s love to wash over us, we too can extend God’s love toward others.

Confessing our sins to God and to one another and acknowledging our imperfections goes a long way in pointing others towards Jesus. As believers, when we try to hide and cover up our mistakes, it so often turns others away, but when we admit that we’re not perfect, it helps them to understand more fully the love and grace that is available to them as well.

Great (and Diverse) Multitude

From this multitude of martyrs in Revelation 7, we learn too that the Church — the Body of Christ — is made up of believers all throughout the world, and all throughout history. Many of them look different than us, speak different languages from us, and have different ways of living out their faith. This means that we should be careful not to speak ill of those who may worship differently than us, or believe and act differently than us, since the Body of Christ is so much larger and more diverse than any of us can imagine.

Worship

And then finally, there’s worship. The saints and martyrs in Revelation 7 would remind us that worship is not just what we do when we come together on Sunday mornings. Worship is not just singing songs, or praying prayers. Worship is giving our lives in sacrificial service, submitting ourselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s growing passionately in love with Jesus and allowing that love to permeate every fiber of our being. 

We worship God when we put God first in our homes and marriages and families, in our work and in our school. We worship God when we allow God’s Word to illuminate our lives, to transform us and make us over anew. We worship God in response to what God has done for us. We worship through laying all that we have and all that we are on the altar, and saying “God, use me as you will. Send me to do your will.” We worship God as we live our lives in response to the love that God demonstrated to us through sending Jesus to die on the cross for us. We worship as we allow our hearts to be broken for the hurting, the needy, and the lost in this world, and as we open ourselves in obedience to God’s will for our lives.

May we find hope and comfort that one day we too will gather together with that great multitude around God’s throne, worshipping God for all of eternity. And may we too live our lives in constant devotion to Christ, passionately giving ourselves in love for God and others in response to overwhelming grace and abundant love that God has poured out for us.